Jail for hit-and-run driver who killed Kildare councillor

Willie Crowley
Willie Crowley

A hit-and-run driver who knocked down and killed Kildare councillor Willie Crowley in December 2015 has been jailed for four years.

Mr Crowley (56) died from his head injuries in Naas Hospital a few days after he was struck by a car driven by Damien Klasinski (29) on the evening of December 15, 2015. He had been walking home from his local pub at the time.

Klasinski of The Oaks, Newbridge, Co Kildare drove off after hitting Mr Crowley. He told the three others passengers in the car: “What am I supposed to do?”.

The passengers came forward to gardaí and Klasinski was arrested the next day when gardaí found him hiding in a wardrobe at a friend's home.

He told gardaí in interview that he had panicked, saying: “I am very sorry. It was an accident. I'm really hoping this man recovers”.

He later pleaded guilty at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to dangerous driving causing the death of Mr Crowley on Eyre Street, Newbridge.

Judge Melanie Greally adjourned the case earlier this month. Today/yesterday (FRIDAY) she suspended the last 18 months of a five and a half year sentence. She also disqualified him from driving for ten years.

She said Klasinski was entitled to credit for his plea of guilty, his admissions to gardaí, his remorse, his employment history and family circumstances and the fact that as a non-national prison would be more difficult for him.

She said that he drove too fast in conditions which demanded caution and a more moderate speed. She said the other aggravating factors included the fact that he had no licence or insurance.

The judge said this was the third time in ten months that the accused was detected for driving offences. In February 2015 he was driving while intoxicated and without insurance.

In November 2015 he was caught driving again without insurance. These offences didn't come to court until the following year when he received a two year driving ban.

Judge Greally said Klasinski's decision to drive away from the accident showed an abject disregard for the life of his victim and was a serious aggravating factor.

In her victim impact statement Mr Crowley's widow Claire Doyle said that her husband was taken from her “so brutally” and that her home was no longer a home.

“I have lost my husband, my best friend, my confidant and I do not look forward to my future,” she said.

The victim's sister Breda Crowley-Arnold said her brother's name was a byword in her family for all that was good and admirable.

Judge Greally said the impact statements eloquently described their agonising loss. She said Mr Crowley was a man who gave unstintingly to his family and community and his death brought incalculable suffering.

She said Mr Crowley, who had planned to run in the next general election, had “bold and bright plans for the future”.

Detective Garda Sergeant James O'Sullivan told Lorcan Staines BL, prosecuting, that Mr Crowley was walking home from the pub on the night but was not intoxicated.

He was crossing the street when Klasinski's car struck him. Sgt O'Sullivan said that Klasinski had met an oncoming vehicle and the street was too narrow for both vehicles to pass together.

Klasinski swerved in without braking to let the vehicle pass and swerved out again. Mr Crowley had been waiting behind the other vehicle and was standing in the middle of the road.

Klasinski said he swerved unsuccessfully to avoid the victim. He said he had only just set out on the road and was driving at around the speed limit of 50km/hr.

One eye witness said the impact sent the victim flying into the air and that the driver didn't sound his horn or apply the brakes.

Other witnesses estimated him to be travelling at speeds in excess of this and up to 80 km/hr. It had rained earlier in the day making the road wet and the street lighting was poor.

Mr Staines said the prosecution was taken on the basis that the accused was driving at an unsafe speed in circumstances where the ground was wet and on a dark winter night in an area where people were around.

Klasinski, a Polish native, has 13 previous convictions mainly for road traffic offences. The court heard details of a testimonial from a prison chaplain who stated that Klasinski felt genuinely profound remorse.

“He relives this tragedy everyday. He cannot forgive himself,” the chaplain wrote.

Matthias Kelly QC, defending, said that his client was in a total blind panic when he drove away from the scene.

He said Klasinski realised the Crowley family had lost a cherished husband and was deeply remorseful. He fully admitted what he had done and wanted now to offer his sincere apology and condolences to the family, counsel said.

The maximum penalty for the offence is ten years imprisonment. Judge Greally said she was also taking into consideration the charges of failing to remain at the scene of an accident and failing to assist at the scene.

During the trial the court heard that the victim was on the way home from his local pub to prepare a menu for a Christmas dinner for those in need. A shopping list was found in his pocket.

The victim's widow described the trauma and shock of seeing her husband's battered, bruised and broken body and his shattered skull.

She said he was preparing to stand as a candidate in the general election when he was injured.

“I spent the next three days and nights at Willie's bedside hoping against hope for a miracle,” she said. She said that “the brutal violence of his death” shocked her to her core.

“Panic, anxiety, fear, insomnia, loss of concentration, loss of confidence plus the loss of identity continues to this day,” she said.

The victim's sister said in her statement that she and her brother were orphans and he became her “adored big brother, teacher and mentor”.

She said his personality filled a room and he was a light that brightened every happy occasion. She said he fought to overcome all adversity and threw himself into public life.

Ms Crowley-Arnold said: “As Christians we are obliged to forgive Mr Klasinski, which we do. We do not seek vengeance,” but said the family wanted to see justice.

Judge Greally asked counsel if Klasinski's failure to stop at the scene had any consequences in delaying medical attention. Mr Staines said it didn't as there were many people around and he received immediate medical attention.

After the passengers in the car came forward Klasinski became a suspect. Gardaí found him hiding in the wardrobe in a friend's house and arrested him.

He told them he was hiding because he was scared. “I am very sorry, it was an accident,” he said.

Klasinski said that he had been blinded by the very bright head lights of the vehicle he met on the street. He said he saw the victim come out from behind this car it was too late to break and he veered to avoid him.

He told gardaí that he had driven off because he panicked. One passenger who was in the car with Klasinski said that the speed of driving was such that he nearly went through the windscreen of the car when the car hit Mr Crowley.

He estimated Klasinski was driving at around 80 km/hr and said he always drove too fast. Another passenger said Klasinski was driving a bit faster than normal. He also said the lights of the oncoming car were very strong.

In mid-2016 Klasinski's legal team applied to have the case transferred from Kildare Circuit Court after they argued that he wouldn't be able to get a fair trial in the county because of the victim's public profile and the level of sympathy.

A trial was scheduled to go ahead in the summer but Klasinski entered a guilty plea last March.

Mr Kelly said there was no evidence that his client had been under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Mr Staines submitted to the court that the offence of failure to stop at the scene of an accident was to reflect the fact that doing so avoided the mandatory testing carried out to people involved in a collision.

He said that while the prosecution did not rely on any evidence to suggest intoxication or any suspicion, the defence could not advance categorically that he didn't. Judge Greally said she would treat it as a neutral issue in her sentencing.

In June 2016 Klasinski was disqualified from driving for two years for driving without insurance in November 2015. In February 2017 he was convicted at Cork District Court for drunk driving and driving without insurance, a licence and without a valid NCT disc on a date in February 2015.